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Sony’s PlayStation 4 offers a first look at the future of gaming

PlayStation 4 Press Conference

The Wii U technically kicked off the eighth generation of consoles when it arrived in November, but on Wednesday night in New York City, Sony offered up our first look at the true next generation of console gaming with the PlayStation 4.

Destined for store shelves this holiday season, the new system will include a predictable boost in graphics horsepower, an evolved controller, new social-sharing features, streaming capabilities, and extensive connectivity with the existing PlayStation Vita.

Better hardware, better graphics

Though Sony never offered a glimpse at what the final PlayStation 4 console would look like from the outside, the company did reveal plenty of details about what kind of hardware would go into making it “the most powerful console ever.”

Like the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation 4 will use hardware adapted from computers, including eight processors on a single die and 8GB of RAM, to offer cutting-edge graphics. Like a PC, gamers will also be able to put the system into standby to resume more quickly when they power it back up.

Down the line, the PlayStation 4 will open the door to huge graphics advances…

As gamers pore over the demo videos from Sony and many more to come before launch, they’ll need to accept that PS4 graphics – while improved – are not going to immediately look like a revolution over the PS3. The hardware may be more muscular, but much of its brute strength will translate to more nuanced details on screen.

For instance, enhanced lighting and smoke represent a significant jump forward for gaming, and the amount of action that can happen in one scene will dramatically increase. In one demo, one million orbs drop onto a complex cityscape, realistically bouncing and rolling without slowing the simulation to a stutter. From a technical standpoint, this is incredible.

Many of the possibilities of this type of technology won’t manifest themselves for years. But imagine an open-world game that has 100 things going on at once where once only 10 were possible. Down the line, the PlayStation 4 will open the door to huge graphics advances, especially in effects like facial animation, thanks to a massive increase in polygon counts. But the early games will rely more on other ways to impress you.

playstation-4-controller

The PS4 controller has been redesigned as well, and will now be dubbed the DualShock 4. While it will retain the familiar shape and characteristics of the PlayStation controls, it will also feature a small touchpad that allows you to open certain menus, like music and video, and may do more that we haven’t seen. Sony also added a Share button, and like PlayStation Move controllers, it will have a colored orb built into it that can be picked up by the dual cameras in a set-top peripheral similar to Microsoft’s Kinect. This feature wasn’t truly demonstrated on Wednesday, but it holds plenty of potential for developers.

Streaming

Sony’s purchase of the cloud-based gaming service Gaikai several months ago has had a clear influence on the system’s design. Sony plans to make every PlayStation One, PS2, and PS3 game available via streaming through Gaikai technology. The system’s architecture has even been specifically adapted for it: A separate chip inside will handle content downloads, so you can continue to download one game while you stream another. Even when you turn the system off, it will remain on in low power and continue the download.

The user interface also leverages this “always on” connectivity. It will personalize itself to your tastes, and will use these same preferences to preload games for you. For instance, if you favor a particular developer, when that developer releases a new game, part of it will be downloaded on your system – at least enough that you can immediately start playing while the rest of the game downloads in the background. How this exactly works wasn’t entirely clear, but we’ll certainly see more of it in the future. The advanced personalization and preloading function may suggest that the system requires a constant online connection – although that is speculation. Sony also revealed that your preferences will allow it to offer tailored advertising in the interface.

Social

Sony is pushing forward with the social side of things in a big way. Beyond the obvious social integration with things like Facebook, the PlayStation 4 will also allow games to be shared. Tapping the aforementioned Share button on the controller will capture video at any time from the game you are playing, then save it. A new partnership with Ustream will also make it possible to broadcast in-game footage live, directly from your console. But it goes beyond even that.

PlayStation 4 Press Conference

While you are playing a game, your friends can jump into the game and watch you play it. Going even further, if you are stuck at a part and one of your friends has beaten it (presumably meaning they own the game themselves), they can then jump into the game and take over – or they can simply watch and offer comments.

Vita

The PS4 will connect to a number of outside devices, including smartphones, tablets, and – most importantly – the PlayStation Vita.

Using Gaikai streaming technology, all PS4 games will also be playable on the Vita, aping the Wii U’s success with the GamePad. That means Vita owners will be able to play full console games on a handheld device, breathing new life into the Vita, and showing that Sony has been playing the long game with the device.

Plenty more to come

Sony still has plenty of questions left to answer about the PlayStation 4, including how much it will cost and whether or not it will play rental games, but for now, we have our first real look at the next generation of gaming.

Look for plenty more analysis of the new system, including a look at the announced games, in the days to come. 

[UPDATE:  Sony has confirmed that the PlayStation 4 will NOT require the system to be always connected to the internet]